It is expected that Android phones with 3D sensors will surge this year. Due to the expansion of time-of-flight (ToF) 3D sensors, which are cheaper than conventional structured light (SL) 3D sensors, the possibility of applying 3D sensor modules to entry-level smartphones has been increased.
DigiTimes, a Taiwanese news media outlet, has predicted that Android phone production equipped with a 3D sensor will be over 20 million units this year due to the spread of cheap ToF sensor modules. The Android Headlines, an IT media, also expects Android phones with a ToF 3D sensor module to increase sharply this year. According to Strategy Analytics (SA), worldwide smartphone shipments were 1.43 billion units last year. Except for the 206 million units of the Apple iPhone, 1.22 billion units were based on Android OS. The expected 20 million units with 3D sensor technology will account for 1.6% of the total number.
Currently, the ToF sensor is applied to the Android faction’s flagship phones including LG Electronics’ G8 ThinQ, Huawei’s P30 Pro, and Samsung Electronics’ Galaxy S10 5G. Xiaomi, Vivo, and Oppo will also adopt the ToF method for their smartphones. Accordingly, taken together, in addition to considering the mid-priced products, it means that ToF-type Android phones can reach 20 million units.
A ToF sensor calculates the distance by measuring the amount of time between when the light emitted toward the subject and when it is reflected back to recognize the stereoscopic effect of an object and its spatial information. The ToF method has a longer recognizable range distance and is more accurate than the existing SL method. The SL method is a technique that analyzes deformed information of an object surface pattern. This is the method Apple applied to the iPhone X (Face ID) in 2017.
The ToF method is assessed as being excellent in price competitiveness. Without disclosing the specific figures, the foreign media said ToF sensor modules are cheaper than existing SL types. According to a report last year, SL-based 3D camera modules cost $50 each. Furthermore, to apply 3D sensors to smartphones, additional resources are required for driver development and module compatibility checks. Last year, among the new Android phones that applied SL method, only Huawei’s Mate 20 Pro and Oppo’s Find X exceeded the sales of 1 million units.
Austrian ams AG is a leading example of ToF price competitiveness. ams AG announced the production of a ToF module sensor, ‘TMF8701 1D ToF sensor’, at the price level of $2.60 at Mobile World Congress (MWC) last month. It will take some time until commercialization, but it symbolizes the competitiveness of ToF. One industry official in Korea said, “The ToF method is highly productive. It means that the yield is good.”
Sony, a leader in camera chips, is also expecting the expansion of the application of ToF. Yoshihara Satoshi, CEO of Sony’s sensor business, said in a Bloomberg interview last December that mobile phone makers will apply ToF sensors at a fast pace. At that time, he expected that the demand for manufacturers such as Samsung Electronics and Huawei is growing, and the demand for these products could rise as these manufacturers apply 3D sensors to mid- to low-end products. Apple’s next generation iPhone is also likely to be equipped with a ToF sensor. Sony plans to implement 3D sensors into augmented reality (AR) games, which will reverse consumer interest in smartphones.